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8 minute read

Innovation success - Firing bullets, then cannonballs.

We explore the 'Firing bullets, then cannonballs' concept published by Jim Collins and apply it to innovation.
Concept idea innovation 212286
by Rob Verheul
19 September 19
  • Innovation

Jim Collins is an American author, consultant and lecturer on the subject of business management and company sustainability and growth.

After many years of research into what makes the greatest organisations successful, he has drawn several conclusions of the behaviours that organisations adopt to reach greatness. At Graphite, we’ve believed for a long time that a blend of creativity and discipline help to scale innovation. Along with a process of ideating, testing and prototyping. In this article, we’ll be exploring one of Jim Collins principles, and how to follow this process for successful innovation.


I was recently fortunate enough to hear Jim speak at an event, where he shared one of his concepts from his book  ‘Great by Choice’. It rang several bells with me, particularly around a principle we’ve firmly believed for years, yet organisations are still struggling to get to grips with. Here’s an excerpt from the book that explains the story of “Fire bullets, then cannonballs.

[Sic] - Excerpts from Great by Choice, by Jim Collins

Picture yourself at sea, a hostile ship bearing down on you. You have a limited amount of gunpowder. You take all your gunpowder and use it to fire a big cannonball. The cannonball flies out over the ocean…and misses the target, off by 40 degrees. You turn to your stockpile and discover that you’re out of gunpowder. You die. But suppose instead that when you see the ship bearing down, you take a little bit of gunpowder and fire a bullet. It misses by 40 degrees. You make another bullet and fire. It misses by 30 degrees. You make a third bullet and fire, missing by only 10 degrees. The next bullet hits—ping!—the hull of the oncoming ship. Now, you take all the remaining gunpowder and fire a big cannonball along the same line of sight, which sinks the enemy ship. You live.

...Both the 10Xers [leading companies] and the comparison cases fired cannonballs. The comparison companies, however, tended to fire cannonballs before they’d obtained a confirming calibration—empirical validation gained through actual experience—that the cannonball would likely reach its intended target. The 10Xers were much more likely to fire calibrated cannonballs, while the comparison cases had uncalibrated cannonballs flying all over the place.

How does this help to drive successful innovation?

What I love about this example is that it’s simple, and works on multiple levels. We’ve shared for many years about how to innovate, and how lean approaches are the best ways of doing this. On a basic level, that’s what this story is about. The ‘bullets’ are the innovative prototypes that we help our customers to create and test. But there’s more to the moral of the story than this...

The pace of change makes innovation a necessity.

The ship was bearing down on them already, so they had to fire. Such is the pace of change in every industry, there is an ever-present need to innovate, to try new things and to change. The parallel here is that in the story, the ship is already bearing down on them, so they had no choice but to act.

Surprisingly, there are still many organisations that are not looking out for other ships. They are not looking at the competition and what they’re doing. They’re missing the fact the competition is bearing down on them with their own cannonballs. They are also not embracing innovation well or firing their own bullets.

Somehow, many still feel they are too big to fail, that innovation is someone else’s job, and others feel it’s too daunting a task. Recently we met a senior executive in a large, famous healthcare brand who suggested that it would be impossible to transform their organisation to embrace digital; ‘we’re too old’ they said. I hope that opinion isn’t shared by everyone in the organisation; if it were, I’d be concerned about their future!

Create clear objectives

The bullet aimed to hit the target, not sink the opposition. In this example, it’s clear what the goal is for the bullet - to hit the opposition. That’s what success looked like for the leadership and the crew.

All too often, we see examples where the expectations for innovation are too great. The company has put all their eggs in one basket, with the assumption that it will create growth, new opportunities, protect their future, and take down their competition.

What is needed is a succession of ideas (bullets), calibrated accurately to test insights (angles), and a KPI to know what is working for customers (hitting the target).

And hitting the target, or being ultra clear on what the goal is, is often the thing that gets overlooked. If you don’t know what you’re aiming for, you’ll never know when you get there. Recently we worked with a global brand on three innovative CX concepts, which were prototyped and tested around the world with customers. All of which were good ideas, sponsored at the executive level. What we discovered was that two ideas were well received by the focus groups, and one was not. This level of clarity on what good looks like, and tolerance to reject an idea, saved potentially months of energy on the idea that would never pay dividends.

Delight your customer

Remember: there’s only so much gunpowder.  We’ve shared the importance of innovation, systematically, and being clear on what good looks like, but there’s one more point we’d be remiss not to mention.

Innovation is alluring and exciting, however, it can fail to serve the purposes that matter. We believe that what matters is an enhancement of the Customer Experience. That will always pay dividends.

If you lose sight of your customer and innovate for its own sake, then it’s an expensive choice to make. If you don’t achieve anything, the company won’t invest forever.

We recently became aware of a company that is incentivising its teams to deliver new features into their app. i.e. their pay is determined not by what customers think of the app, but the number of features in there. Don’t be like that company. If you focus on what will make the difference for the customer; you’ll take chunks out of the competition in the process.

How Graphite can help...

Do you need help to understand your customers? Want to refine your customer experience strategy and culture to focus on innovation? Our team would love to help, contact us for a chat about this article or any of our services. We’d love to help you prototype for the future.

For more information on Jim and his books, as well as the book excerpt about the concept, visit Jim Collins’ website.

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